Looking Back to the Future of Jewish Philanthropy

by Johanna Arbib Perugia

When we inquire about the future of Jewish philanthropy, we are really asking about the future of the Jewish people. This is due to the fact that since Biblical times, the two have been immutably interrelated. Then as now, philanthropy played an integral part in shaping Jewish life, values and society, it was not merely a question of helping the poor.

One of the most beautiful expressions of this can be found in the tacit agreement between the tribes of Zevulun and Issachar, where one tribe would study while the other provided for their material needs. Though this relationship was not viewed as philanthropy, but rather more as a partnership or a means of dividing tasks to achieve a common goal, it is clearly rooted in the patently Jewish philosophy of philanthropy.

And it is clear that this philosophy has passed the test of time with flying colors. It can be discerned in the philanthropic endeavors of such modern giants as Edmund de Rothschild and Sir Moses Montefiore, who supported their fellow Jews in Israel, building institutions, industry and Jewish settlements as a means of implementing their vision for the establishment of a Jewish homeland.

John Gardner, an American public figure who did much to promote social philanthropy in the United States, once claimed “Wealth is not new, neither is charity. But the idea of using private wealth imaginatively, constructively, and systematically to attack the fundamental problems of mankind, is new.” Perhaps for society as a whole, Mr. Gardner. But the Jewish people have been doing just that for thousands of years.

So where are we falling short? Certainly not in social vision, nor in the generosity department. Jews are still among the world’s most generous givers. The issue is that they are not giving to Israel or Jewish causes. By far, the greatest portions of Jewish mega donations today are directed towards non-Jewish causes outside of Israel.

In the same vein, the younger generation identifies with being Jewish in a very different way than their parents. Their identification is built on the fluid sense of self-identity which characterizes their generation. For many young Jews, Tikun Olam is as much about global issues as it is about Israel or the Jewish people.

Our answer to this way of thinking and the message we must set by example should be: “Yes, Jews should give to all causes, but Israel and the Jewish people must remain our number one priority.” In the words of the Mishna: “If I am not for myself who will be for me.”

Ultimately, philanthropy of all kinds is about concern for the ‘collective’, the wider community. It is about identification, optimism and faith. I believe our greatest challenge and mission as Jewish leaders today is to educate the younger generation to identify with and care for the future of the Jewish collective, which relies entirely on the continued existence of Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people. This is not merely the key to the future of Jewish philanthropy – it is the key to our future as a people. The only way we can expect to achieve this is through massive and concerted educational efforts to reach the hearts and minds of our younger generation.

The Jewish people and Jewish philanthropy are inextricably intertwined. As long as Israel and the Jewish people exist, Jewish philanthropy will continue to exist. As long as Jewish philanthropy continues to thrive, so will Israel and the Jewish people. This is because Jewish philanthropy reflects simply, in its purest form, our will and determination as a people to survive and flourish.

Johanna Arbib Perugia is the Chair of Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal’s World Board of Trustees. Ms. Arbib Perugia will participate on a panel, Where is Jewish Philanthropy Headed?, taking place this week at the third Israeli Presidential Conference: Facing Tomorrow 2011 in Jerusalem.